Friday, May 22, 2015

Strait, Narrow, and Few

In my last post, I talked about Scripture flowing in one direction on a topic, but then sometimes we see "rocks" that interrupt that flow. One of these "rocks" that I mentioned is Matt. 7:13-14. I've been wrestling with Matt. 7:13-14 for some time now. Some would just tell me to accept the fact that few go to heaven and almost everyone goes to hell. End of discussion. It's settled.

Only that doesn't settle it for me because I see a strong current in Scripture moving toward an earth that is full of righteousness and a heaven with innumerable hosts. It's surprising how often this appears.

It's in the Pentateuch in Numbers 14:21. Here, there are only a few. There are two faithful out of about 2 million and God is ready to wipe them out. Moses appeals to God's mercy and forgiving nature and God responds with forgiveness and mercy and states that "all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord." He does not withhold punishment in this incident, and reminds us of the virtue of justice. But He forgives and pardons and redeems and preserves those two and raises up an entire faithful nation that inherits His promises.

This statement in Numbers 14:21 is repeated almost verbatim in Habakkuk 2:14. Again, it's a context of wickedness overwhelming righteousness, and here is this promise. The earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

In probably the most Messianic Psalm, Psalm 22:1-31, we have a very interesting promise in Psalm 22:27. The Psalmist is forsaken by God, surrounded by enemies mocking and abusing. But eventually God hears and delivers, and promises that "all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord."

There are several verses like this in the Psalms.(Ps. 72:19; 86:9; 66:4; 102:15; 98:1-3, etc. etc.)

And Isaiah? Isaiah surely believed that the whole of the earth was going to honor God. Isaiah 11:9 is essentially the same as Habakkuk 2:14. Isaiah 11 is in a context of the kingdom of God covering the whole earth and is one of the most beautiful descriptions of the earth being full of peace and righteousness in all of Scripture.

And I haven't even talked about Revelation 7:9-12. And Revelation 15:4. And there are many more. Research for yourself.

Some may say, "but those passages are figurative and prophetic". I'll grant that for some of them. But even so, the figures and prophecies have meaning. The overwhelming flow is toward an earth filled with people who know God. You have to try to miss that in the Old Testament. And the innumerable hosts in heaven stands in contrast with few entering a narrow gate.

Yet the most common explanation of Matt. 7:13-14 that I've heard is a reversal of this flow. This explanation says, "Very, very, very few go to heaven. Almost everyone goes to hell." It's as if Jesus came along and on the Sermon on the Mount said, "By the way, all those promises about the earth knowing and turning to the Lord, I'm reversing those. Just a very few people are truly approved. 'Us and them' is the right way to think after all."

The churches with which I've been associated have especially relied on this passage. These churches have shaped my faith and made me much of who I am today. I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to them for my Bible knowledge, study habits, friends, family, good work ethic, appreciation for purity, and many other good things. I love those churches, my people. But these churches have isolated themselves from all others who claim to be Christian and used Matt. 7:13-14 as justification and as comfort for this isolation.

I no longer believe the "us and them" use of this passage is correct or good. According to Wikipedia, these churches have about 120,000 members. There is considerable evidence that the number of members is shrinking at an alarming rate. If their isolation is correct, then less than 0.0017% of the world's population makes it. That isn't a narrow gate. It's a closed gate.

I'm not completely sure what Matt. 7:13-14 means. Consider the immediate context that promises that "all who seek will find" and "whoever knocks, it will be opened for him" (Matt. 7:7-8). The immediate context emphasizes that the Father knows how to give good gifts and wants to give them more than we do (Matt. 7:11). In light of that, I don't think He's saying that there's a pattern for worship hidden in the New Testament and about 1 out of 100,000 in the world will find it and those will be rewarded with the good gift of heaven while the rest of the world just won't get the blessing of God's eternal goodness.

However, no matter the numbers and despite its contrast from the context, Matt. 7:13-14 still has meaning. I do not want to ignore this verse. I do not want to ignore the flow of Scripture. How can I honor both?

The rock is still there and the river is still flowing and God's voice is in this sound of the flow against the rock. The earth and heaven will be filled with innumerable people who know God and His love and justice and peace. Few enter the narrow gate that leads to life and many go the broad way to destruction.

One idea that I think has some merit is this: Jesus was speaking exclusively to a Jewish audience. Those in that Jewish audience were His contemporaries. His teachings were very strange and contrary to them. Very few of His Jewish contemporaries would heed His word. Maybe.

Perhaps He is talking about a way of life more than eternal destiny. He's talking about a way of life that truly lives by the golden rule and gives to the needy and shares and puts others' needs above one's own. There are really few who truly live self-sacrificially, even though that is a brilliantly simple and fulfilling yet difficult ethos that brings life. Perhaps.

Or maybe He really is saying that only Christians will be saved and there will be few of them. In the world today, about 2 out of 7 people claim to be Christian. Even if "not every one who says Lord, Lord" (Matt. 7:21) makes it to heaven, a little over 2 billion is enough to cover the earth but it's still a relatively narrow gate. Maybe.

Or maybe the truth is in the sound of the flow against the rock. Just like Joshua and Caleb were alone among the spies and the vast numbers in the whole camp of Israel, God redeemed the camp and raised a nation. To this nation in His perfect timing, He sent His Son. His Son was alone and rejected and abused and killed. Even though His followers disbanded and forsook Him in His darkest hours, God raised Him. And God redeemed those followers who disbanded and turned them into the church, the kingdom of God, that now covers the earth. In spite of overwhelming odds and a very small beginning, God's name and glory will cover the entire earth and God will continue to redeem the faithfulness of His servants to spread love and peace and justice. That's what I think is the best explanation.

But for sure, I'm convinced that Matt. 7:13-14 is NOT a passage to give any one tiny sect a raison d'etre. It's not intended for folks to quote then congratulate themselves for being the few who figured out God's true will. It's not intended for people to use as justification for sitting on their hands and isolating themselves from other followers of Jesus. It's not there to give comfort for a small sect's own numbers falling because "broad is the way" and "this evil world doesn't want the truth". I'm sure of that.

Instead of worrying about who's in and who's out, I should put more effort in loving God and loving others. More like Him.

No comments:

Post a Comment